A welcome, layered, and moving musical experience

Piffaro presents Festa di Natale!

5 minute read
Photo of Raphael’s Adoration of the Magi, with a blue-robed Mary & chunky Christ child at center of bowing crowd of robed men
Celebrating an Italian Renaissance Christmas: Raphael’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ fresco (1517-1519). (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Piffaro’s holiday offerings are highly anticipated, and Festa di Natale! was an evocative continuation of its tradition. Philadelphia’s noted early music band explored sacred and secular music of Renaissance Italy in a deeply felt instrumental concert ornamented with projected artworks illuminating the pull and power of this sacred holiday—a performance augmented by the opportunity to stream a recording.

Piffaro (Priscilla Herreid, Grant Herreid, Greg Ingles, and Erik Schmalz) was joined by guest artists Sian Ricketts, Héloïse Degrugillier, and Mack Ramsey. Arranged in front of a black-curtained elevated screen, the players (dressed in black) were smartly visible below the well-chosen images. This simple, effective staging allowed the audience to focus on the exceptional musicianship (virtuosic turns for all) as players smoothly changed multiple instruments.

Piffaro’s gift is to make music from a largely unfamiliar period accessible through pristine musicianship and thoughtful thematic organization. In choosing repertoire, artistic director Priscilla adeptly created an aural tonic. The concert began and ended in a reflective mode, as nine programmatic sets moved hearers along a path of anticipation and celebration that was as familiar to us as to Renaissance Italy (here’s a video preview).

Lauda, street songs, and the great mystery

The concert opened with contemplative, prayerful music. As they did throughout, here the ensemble played in varying configurations to explore the lauda, a style of single-line song begun in the Middle Ages that later moved into Renaissance polyphony. This set’s three laude were compiled by the priest Serafino Razzi in his 1563 work Libro primo della laudi spirituali, opening with a soothing musical portrait of Joseph and the animals protecting the baby in the manger. It featured Priscilla on a little bagpipe called the Hümmelchen (tiny bumblebee). And here, as throughout, music was enhanced by projections of texts and well-chosen period artwork.

The next set, “Mary Queen of Heaven,” paid tribute to Jesus’s mother in works including a frottola (a song wedded to poetry that paved the way for the madrigal) by the aptly named master wind player Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c. 1470-1535). This section was followed by “Ceremonial Music Outside the Cathedral,” with the lively, energetic music of civic wind bands that would have serenaded people on their way to Christmas-day mass.

Amidst that celebratory music was placed a beautiful, quiet duet for lute (Grant) and recorder (Degrugillier) that presaged the set titled “Christmas Day,” a relatively quiet time in Renaissance Italy spent mostly in church. The five pieces included two of Razzi’s laude with texts by Lucrezia de Medici (Lorenzo’s daughter and a patron of the arts), but the most moving work was the restrained, expansive O magnum mysterium (O great mystery) by Bolognese composer Andrea Rota (1553-1597). This beloved Latin text, detailing “the great mystery that animals see the blessed babe,” is still addressed by composers today, including a notable work by American composer Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943).

Nobles dance and hunt

Next was the lively dance set for which the concert was titled. Italian nobility were highly trained in the art of dancing, which would go on for hours, often in a form called estampie. Three anonymous works played here are catalogued in a rare British Library collection (BL29987). The audience was swaying and tapping their feet in this excitingly rhythmic section, and projections were especially illuminating, with period drawings or paintings showing musicians of the time playing the very same instruments as Piffaro.

After intermission came “The Entrance of the Nobles,” filled with stately and aristocratic music. A highlight was La Mantovana by Gasparo Zanetti (c. 1600-1660), from a madrigal tune (Fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo / Flee, flee from this harsh sky) that became popular throughout Europe and was incorporated into compositions well after the Renaissance, including Smetana’s famous work The Moldau.

Next was a musical depiction of a highlight of the Italian Renaissance holiday season, “The Hunt.” Opening with Ala caccia / To the hunt, this featured drums and trumpets (including those incredibly long straight trumpets, played with elan by Ingles and Schmalz). Again, projected images made it easy to imagine the excitement of an activity that seems so far from us. The penultimate set, “Entrance of the Three Kings,” featured elegant, magisterial music including two beautiful pieces by the great (and more familiar) composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), Rex Melchior and Reges Tharsis. This last was one of the concert’s most beautiful works, a lyrical setting for a consort of plangent recorders.

Wonder and depth

The concert closed with “The Wonder of the Epiphany,” a quieter, devotional section including Verbum caro factus est / And the word was made flesh (another Razzi laude), and Tribus miraculis by Claudio Merulo (1533-1604), telling of the star that led the magi. Both these Latin sacred texts are still set by composers today. The concluding work was Chi per la strada retta (Anon. 1658) in an arrangement (by Priscilla) for all seven players that elucidated the concert’s delicate balance of the sacred and the secular.

As afternoon darkened into evening, the white marble of First & Central Presbyterian Church (in Wilmington, where I saw the concert) glowed with subtle lighting and musical warmth. Audience and musicians were drawn together in a holiday mood both festive and reflective—a welcome, layered, and moving musical experience. As we are besieged by rampant holiday busy-ness and often-enforced festivity, Piffaro’s music was a reminder of the continuity and depth of this celebratory time, and this thoughtful concert (available to stream December 17-27) was filled with the inspiring joy in music-making that transcends the centuries.

What, When, Where

Festa di Natale! Piffaro (Priscilla Herreid, Grant Herreid, Greg Ingles, Erik Schmalz) with guest artists Sian Ricketts, Héloïse Degrugillier, and Mack Ramsey. December 9 through 11, 2022, in Philadelphia and Wilmington; available to stream ($19) December 17-27. (215) 235-8469 or

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